Commercial 8K Services: Five and Counting

By Ben Schwarz

I joined the Ultra HD Forum back when it had just started in 2015. One of my responsibilities is to maintain the Service Tracker, a list of Ultra HD services worldwide. We updated it last week, and it currently lists almost 300 services (TV channels, streaming platforms, pay-TV operators, etc.) that the Forum classifies as an Ultra HD service. A service needs to have at least one of 4K resolution (or above) or HDR to qualify. The Service Tracker offers up to twenty data fields for each service. The listing for the BS8K channel in Japan is shown below.

Data displayed when you select "All Information" for the Service Tracker

Here at the 8K Monitor, we are, of course, more interested in 8K. Indeed the tracker already lists five customer-facing services offering such resolution, officially known as UHD-2 and technically referred to, in the tracker as 4320p after the vertical resolution, i.e., the number of image lines. That’s excluding temporary trials, of which there have been many like the recent Chinese trials here, the global live streaming tests here, or the Korean ATSC 3.0 trial we reported on here. So what are these commercial 8K services? What content is available and where? Here’s a closer look at the leading edge of Ultra HD at the beginning of 2021.

Service Tracker Main Window, with filter set to 4320p

The first 8K broadcast service in the world – and still the only one so far – was launched in Japan by NHK, the national public broadcaster. The service went live in 2018 and is called BS 8K, where BS stands for Broadcast Satellite. It shares its channel with a BS 4K service because there’s not enough 8K content to fill a channel full-time. There are new programs only occasionally. When the Tokyo Olympics finally take place, this is where the 8K coverage will be. Until then, documentaries and 8K scans of a handful of films are broadcast, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and My Fair lady.

Among streaming platforms, YouTube is the best known. In 2013 it started supporting 4K videos, and 8K videos can be uploaded and viewed since 2015. 8K videos are still predominantly time-lapse videos. Still, the number is growing steadily, and it’s probably already the most significant source of 8K material available. Sadly, a filter for 8K videos like YouTube offers for 4K and HDR, among other features, is still lacking.

NASA, the US space agency, has a modest trove of 4K footage that it’s been making available direct to consumers via DTH satellite for a few years on a channel produced by Harmonic. NASA also has some 8K footage. So far, that’s only available to stream via the organization’s website.

Rakuten TV, a TVoD service available in some 30 countries across Europe, has entered partnerships with several Smart TV manufacturers for making Ultra HD content, including 8K content, available to subscribers.

Lastly, The Explorers is an organization that’s tasked itself with “taking inventory of all the planet’s heritage with the latest technology: 4K HDR / 8K HDR”. Members can access this beautiful content via The Explorers’ website or their apps for iOS and Android.

You may expect new 8K services to appear mainly on OTT streaming platforms. As for terrestrial broadcasters and cable operators, the bandwidth is just too limited today. With IPTV and especially satellite delivery, there’s more room. However, with an 8K channel taking up as much space as four 4K channels, 16 HD channels, or a few dozen SD channels, it’s easy to see how it’s still hard to make a business case for 8K delivery over managed networks. Streaming service providers don’t have the same investment concerns, which may explain why they currently own 80% of the market.

We’ll update you here as the trove of 8K services grows on the service tracker.

Thanks to Yoeri Geutskens for his invaluable input for his article.